Merry Whipple and her dog, Rainy, read with Horace Mann Middle School sixth-grader Caitlin Robinson in Neenah on March 12. Whipple and Rainy have won the Daniel P. Spalding Volunteer Educator award. She and the golden retriever, a certified therapy dog, volunteer time in teacher Michelle Marchionda's class with students that have cognitive and learning disabilities. Reading together seems to help the students develop their reading skills. / Sharon Cekada/Post-Crescent Media
Daniel P. Spalding Volunteer Educator Award
The Daniel P. Spalding Volunteer Educator Award honors an individual or group with a history of dedication to education. The award, sponsored by School Specialty Inc., goes to a volunteer or volunteers currently working with preK-12 students in a creative program. Other characteristics include an evident passion for education and the ability to work in the best interest of students and teachers. School Specialty renamed the award, originally called the Volunteer Educator Award, in 2003. The change is a memorial tribute to Dan Spalding, former chairman and CEO of School Specialty, who died of a heart attack at age 47 in the spring of 2002. Spalding was described as the “ultimate education volunteer.”
About this series
Each day through Monday, Post-Crescent Media is highlighting the good deeds of Fox Valley volunteers in advance of the 16th annual Celebrating Our Volunteers event, which takes place Tuesday at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton. It is sponsored by the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region Inc. and Post-Crescent Media. Award winners were selected from among nominees submitted by readers.
Reading becomes a fun task when Merry Whipple and her therapy dog, Rainy, visit Neenah classrooms.
Whipple, 66, and Rainy visit special education classrooms at Coolidge Elementary and Horace Mann Middle schools two or three times a month, giving students a chance to read with Rainy.
Whipple said she was surprised to win this year’s Daniel P. Spalding Volunteer Educator Award.
“I was just stunned, overwhelmed, completely honored. I cried,” Whipple said. “If nothing else, maybe I can be in a little way a spokesperson for the importance of reading and the importance for as many of us in the community as possible to help kids read.”
Whipple will receive the award during this year’s Celebrating Our Volunteers event Tuesday at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton. Post-Crescent Media spoke to Whipple about her volunteer work. Here is an edited transcript.
How did you get involved in volunteering?
I do a fair amount of volunteering, and I really love dogs, I really love reading, and when I heard about programs where kids read to dogs in various libraries, I thought this would be perfect for us, because it’s important for kids to pick up on reading. I got (Rainy) certified, and the rest is history.
Your nominators mentioned reading to Rainy was a great motivator for students.
It seems to be. Michelle Marchionda (a special education teacher at Horace Mann Middle School) said that incentive seemed to work better than anything else she’s tried before, and I guess that includes pizza and doughnuts. It seems to be a strong incentive, even for the kids who have dogs at home.
What do you think it is about reading with Rainy that motivates them?
They just really enjoy it. Rainy is a very calm, very laid-back golden retriever and in both of the classes, the kids read one-on-one to Rainy. I think there’s something about reading to a dog. Sometimes the kids bring in books, and I remember one of the first years we started doing this, one of the kids brought in an early readers’ book based on the book “Marley and Me” because he assumed Rainy would like the book. They get to cuddle up to the dog. The dog doesn’t judge them. If the child asks for help, I’ll give them help, of course, but otherwise the child just reads at his or her own level. If there are mistakes, it doesn’t matter, because Rainy doesn’t care. She just likes to snuggle up and be petted, and the voice of humans is soothing to her.
How are you making a difference in the community through your volunteer efforts?
I feel so strongly that if you can’t read, not only are the doors closed for you, but they are locked tight and there is no key. If we can help any of these kids, whether they’re in the special ed classes or in traditional classes feel more comfortable reading, if it gives them an incentive to read, they’re just going to do much better. They’re going to enjoy life better, they’re going to know that there are things they can learn or fun they can have reading, either in a book or a magazine. If you can’t read at all, it’s going to be really, really tough for you. I’m just absolutely passionate about reading, and almost as passionate about dogs. It’s just such a wonderful combination to me and wonderful for the kids.
What value do you get from volunteering?
I really strongly believe that it’s the responsibility of every citizen to participate in some way in the community … For me it’s just a matter of — and I know it sounds kind of hokey — giving back to the community. To see a child ‘get it’ when it comes to reading is just beyond price. I remember one specific child who, when we started, really wasn’t reading well at all and was afraid of dogs. This child still wanted to read to Rainy, so I just sat in the middle. By the end of the school year, this child was reading considerably better and was no longer afraid of Rainy … Any time you can do something like that, it’s just beyond price.
What others are saying about the award winner.
Marchionda, one of Whipple’s nominators, said she met Whipple four years ago and thinks her work with students gives them a powerful advantage.
“Merry Whipple is an amazing example of someone who is an advocate for literacy and passionate about instilling a love of reading in young people,” she said.
Marchionda said Whipple and Rainy’s visits make a difficult task easier for her students.
“For many of our students, reading just doesn’t make sense and quickly sets them apart from their peers,” she said. “Words appear jumbled, their speech impairments make it difficult to make sense of sounds or their disability makes it more challenging. Practicing is daunting and tiresome. Now, imagine practicing with a dog in your lap who licks your face every time you are reading well. Reading becomes more tolerable and even enjoyable.”
— Megan Nicolai: 920-993-1000, ext. 290, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @MeganNicolai